In-flight sexual assaults often unreported; airlines need to step up

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In-flight sexual misconduct vastly under-reported, say insiders

When a 17-year-old Bollywood actress took to social media last week alleging she was sexually assaulted on a plane, she appeared to catch the airline industry off-guard.

Her allegations of the assault on a domestic Vistara flight in India triggered online outrage and prompted a rare police investigation.

The incident, which came shortly after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's sister Randi said she had been a victim of sexual harassment on an Alaska Airlines flight, highlights a risk to airlines: They need to do more than just respond when an incident goes public and their brand comes under fire.

Strategic Aero Research analyst Saj Ahmad said: "Being prepared to address passenger concerns rather than being reactive to social media complaints will arguably help address these problems in real time."

Most people contacted about in-flight sexual misconduct against passengers and crew - including airlines, flight attendant unions and airline training consultants - said incidents are vastly under-reported.

Last year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said airlines reported just 211 instances of "inappropriate sexual behaviour".

That is among 3.8 billion passengers on more than 40 million flights.

IATA said fewer than half those cases were reported to the authorities, which is why there are so few police investigations.

"Victims are required to press charges, the airline cannot do that for them," said Ms Taylor Garland, spokesman for the US Association of Flight Attendants. "We believe under-reporting occurs."

Mr Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said the IATA data needs to be viewed with caution "as event descriptions are not always standardised" and there are "significant variations in the level of voluntary reporting by airlines".

"With regard to incidents involving sexual harassment, ranging from verbal intimidation to actual physical assault, these are relatively rare, but always taken seriously," he said.

Among nearly two dozen major airlines contacted, only Japan Airlines gave actual figures on incidents of sexual harassment on its flights: Around 10 to 20 a year, with police called in on some cases.

Ms Suhaila Hassan, head of cabin crew at AirAsia, said there had been no reported cases of passenger-on-passenger harassment, though there were occasional instances of cabin crew being harassed.

She said it was possible some incidents were not reported to the airline.

"That could be the case because of the culture. People feel shy and embarrassed if revealed," she said.

The airlines' comments fit with broader studies that estimate three of every four sexual harassment incidents in the workplace in the US go unreported.

In Asia, there is less of a culture of public discourse on sexual harassment.

"We tend to have a culture where... people do not generally speak up," said Mr Jason Tan, a former Singapore Airlines flight attendant who works as a consultant training cabin crews.

Ms ElsaMarie D'Silva, a former flight attendant at Jet Airways, runs a website crowdsourcing cases of sexual harassment and abuse.

She said cases are under-reported in India because of the associated shame and a culture where the onus is on the victim to prove the allegations.

"The time has come for Indian aviation to take this more seriously," she said. - REUTERS